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What's in a name.

What is your new book about?

The Naming of Names is about a search - two searches, actually. First, it's about the people who, through two thousand years, searched for the rules of nature's game, searched for the order they believed must exist in the natural world, if only they could find the key.

They could not accept the fact that the world had been assembled as a random, chaotic jumble. There must be reasons for it to be made as it is, but only slowly did the rules begin to come clear.

That's the narrative thrust of the book. But woven into that narrative is my own search for the men who did this work, the men that I began to think of as my heroes. I wanted their work to be recognized. I wanted their names in lights.

Why did you want to write this story?

We take so much for granted now. We look at a daisy or a daffodil and call them by their names without really recognizing that there was a time when they didn't have any.

In the old days, trying to make sense of the world around them was an all-consuming preoccupation for thinking people.

I wanted to write a book that showed how the knowledge they acquired - mostly through looking at things properly, a rare skill - gradually stitched together into a kind of map of the plant world. But these people were starting from scratch.

Where does the story start?

Because the world I'm looking at is the world of plants, not of animals, my story starts in Athens, 300BC, where the philosopher Aristotle's pupil, Theophrastus, is the first person ever to write a book about plants. What should these things be called, he asks? What are their similarities and differences? How should they be grouped and ordered? These were really big questions.

He is the number one hero of my book, because he started the debate that then went on for the next two thousand years, sorting, ordering, naming, describing. He knew of about 500 plants. We now have descriptions of 422,000.

Did you have to do much research?

Yes. But that's the fun bit. The hard part is making true, clear sense of what you've discovered. I worked on the book for five years.

In a world full of plagues and poisons, there was a practical need to recognize and differentiate between one plant and another: many medicines were made from plant extracts. With good reason, the old classical authors had a close interest in poisons and their antidotes.

But there was also an overwhelming desire among scholars to make sense of the world they inhabited.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered?

We take instant communication for granted: e-mail, phone, fax, all the rest of it. I suppose what surprised me most was discovering how extraordinary and extensive was the web that connected scholars in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. So much of the work that I'm interested in was being done then.

Gradually, a pan-European network built up between these men, an information exchange, a kind of early internet. And because they all wrote in Latin, the Esperanto of Europe, Spanish scholars could communicate with Italian ones, French researchers could talk to English ones.

Where else did your story take you?

My search took me from Athens in the third century BC, to Constantinople, Venice and the universities of Padua and Pisa where, in the fifteenth century, the first botanical gardens were made.

The great swirling web of knowledge I have been tracking involves the cultured scholars of Islam, the first expeditions to the Indies, and the first settlers in the New World. My last book, The Tulip took me on some extraordinary adventures. The Naming of Names has been an even more thrilling ride.

Anna is speaking at the Examiner Literary Luncheon on Tuesday October 18 at the Galpharm Stadium. Also appearing are Nadeem Aslam, Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall and Lesley Pearce. Tickets are priced pounds 18.95 and they are now available from the Lawrence Batley Theatre box office - not the Examiner office, as in previous years. Guests should arrive at 11.45am for a 12.30pm start. The ticket price includes a three-course lunch.
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Publication:Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, England)
Date:Oct 7, 2005
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